Death Don’t Have No Mercy is a very old, very dark blues by Rev. Gary Davis which has been covered lots, by Dylan and the Dead among others. But today I’m plugging a live version recorded by Hot Tuna in 1992.
Hot Tuna are a very rootsy outfit. For those who don’t know, they were the Jeffersan Airplane faction that didn’t go Starshipping; guitarist/singer Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady. They play blues and country and swing stuff, with a lot of extended guitar/bass breaks, always sitting down.
This is on a live album called Live At Sweetwater Two, and I saw them play more or less this set a few months before they recorded it. I was at an audiophile convention in Miami (at the time I had a minor gig freelancing for The Absolute Sound). Tuna were playing this dark smoky bar in not the greatest part of Miami, but it had really great acoustics. The music was so deep and organic, I was entranced, loved every second of it.
A ridiculous sidelight; there were a bunch of drunk hosers at a stand-up bar behind where we were sitting, talking about getting drunk, and this one dude was particularly loud-voiced and obnoxious, and at one point after he’d talked through a quiet song I leaped up, turned around, and hollered “YOU WANNA FUCKING WELL SHUT UP!?” Right in his face; I might have been drinking myself. He wanted to throw down but (thank goodness) his drunk friends dragged him out; maybe they’d seen that movie before. May have saved my life, he might have been packing.
Anyhow, like I said, Death Don’t Have No Mercy is dark, but this take isn’t, well yeah the words are, but it’s wrapped up in one of the nicest acoustic-blues instrumental accompaniments ever recorded, taken slow. Jorma sings nicely in a pleasing American baritone, and then his guitar, Jack’s bass, and Pete Sears’ piano weave an unhurried swinging sparkle around it, just oozing blues and swing and barrelhouse, it’s only five minutes long and I wish they’d kept going three times as long.
Now, there are a lot of other recordings — iTunes has like a dozen by Hot Tuna alone — and I don’t want to diss any of them, but this one is special to me, and I think it’ll please almost any ear.
Links · Spotify playlist. This tune on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify. There’s no live video that matches this performance, but there’s a 1978 solo performance in dim grey, and again in 2014 with good photography. And here’s a bonus, an old video of Rev. Gary Davis doing his own tune, very hard-core.